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Friday, December 23, 2011


Christmas Pick --- Lady On A Train

Got an e-mail from The Film Noir Foundation promoting their Frisco/Castro Theatre "Christmas Noir" show, which this year featured a Deanna Durbin two-fer, Lady On A Train and Christmas Holiday. The latter's title misleads --- it's a downer equivalent to coal in stockings, but Lady On A Train pleases for lightly-applied Noir, a night club set lavishly appointed, and a not-so-mysterious, but still engaging, murder mystery. It's Universal-sandwiched (1945) between Phantom Lady and The Killers, of a piece with both, and gorgeous on a DVD issued several years back (as part of a Durbin "Sweetheart Pack."







Where Have All The Gun-Wielding Leading Ladies
 in Romantic Comedies Gone?
 Deanna recently turned ninety, so she was twenty-four or so here. Lady On A Train was the first one where they really glammed her up (maybe too much). Off-putting blonde hair has an almost Marilyn Maxwell effect at times. Beauty standards being different then (was it the war?), there's an occassionally lacquered look to the make-up. Uni in the mid-forties was for maturing Durbin while maintaining what worked from her  adolescent past. The strategy made for much tightrope walking with DD's fan force, still an army to be reckoned with. Christmas Holiday of the year before was a one-off that maybe should have been a never-was (her legions didn't like it and the title was fatally inappropo). Part of Holiday's problem may have been getting in ahead of noir conventions not yet firmed. Patrons, most of all those for Deanna Durbin, were unprepared for such onslaught in a 1944 just being introduced to darkish themes.


New York's Premiere for Lady On A Train

One contribution the no-expense-spared Durbins made was lush sets left over for lower-cost brethren to later occupy. I kept figuring Lionel Atwill or Rondo Hatton to peek out from behind one of Lady On A Train's plush curtains. All of Universal seems like home once you've sat for its "Shock" package, and much of a coming generation would. Splurges like for Durbin were the anomalies there. (Comparative) cheapies such as horrors, Sherlock Holmes, and so forth were benign scavengers upon plates left by Deanna and unaccustomed "A" guests at U's table.


Off-Screen Durbin Date of the Moment Al (pre-Lash) LaRue Gets In His Few Words of Dialogue 

In fact, Lady On A Train has much old house and creepy appeal, enough to vault past spookiest of straight chillers, thanks to greater $ spent and effort applied. The set-up of Deanna observing a murder from inside a passing train happens within an opening minute, assuring reasonable pace from there. Mysteries work better on me as age presses (they didn't used to), even when the killer's identity is clear for the same actor having 'dunit so frequently in the past. A huge help too is Miklos Rozsa's moody score. It's not tricked for comedy or Mickey Mouse-ing effect. You could as easily graft this music onto Double Indemnity and come away satisfied.


Former Mad Ghoul David Bruce Promoted by Universal to "A" Lead Opposite Durbin

Deanna doesn't sing until forty minutes in. A few night-club background-ed tunes follow. One of them is Night And Day, among H'wood moments where you could accurately say a camera  caresses its subject. Some of the comedy is silly, if not foolish, the kind you'd need two thousand folks crowded in a theatre to make work. Again there is clash between ingénue Durbin and sexier persona developed by the actress as she grew. DD really sold allure where she could, obviously in hope of putting to bed a Miss Fix-it she deplored. I'd guess without knowing that Lady On A Train was (is) one of her favorites, for glamour treatment it afforded if not husband-to-be Charles David in the director's chair.


Akron, Ohio Gets a Life-Sized Lobby Display for LOAT


Finally among good things is Lady On A Train's Christmas setting. It makes a swell combo with MGM's Lady In The Lake, another that combines Yule cheer with murder investigating. Whether stories work in these is less vital than irresistible 40's modern-dress backdrops --- offices, night spots, trains, apartments, all so much classier and appealing than stripped-down remnants of gracious living 2011's stuck with. Such shows are a lifestyle tour of gone times and so much more vivid now that we're in digital receipt of them. Lady/Train/Lake are crisp enough on DVD to step into, and highly recommended for run-up to the holiday.

7 Comments:

Blogger Laura said...

LADY ON A TRAIN is one of my favorite Deanna films -- I've watched it the last couple Christmases. It definitely makes a nice "outside the box" choice for Christmastime viewing, including Deanna's rendition of "Silent Night" mixed into the noir storyline. It's great, fast-paced fun all the way. So glad you spotlighted it!

Best wishes,
Laura

4:14 AM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said...

I can relate to your to your comment about Universal recycling the sets from its major releases into it's B-movies. The climax of the 1959 sci-fi production THE LEECH WOMAN uses the living room where Lana Turner held court in the Ross Hunter IMITATION OF LIFE remake. Even a decade later, Jerry Lewis' film HOOK, LINE & SINKER, filmed at the Burbank Studios for Columbia, had as the downstairs of his house the standing set of the Stevens' home in BEWITCHED, redecorated.

3:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I first saw today's masthead of Clark Gable staring off into the horizon from the helm of H.M.S. The Bounty, I thought that the abbreviation GPS meant that he was using the "global positioning system" of navigation which wasn't around two hundred years ago. Then my obvious misperception dawned on me. I really do need to get some rest.

10:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love the copy in the ad: "... lustrously backed by an impressive array of seven important marquee names!" It smacks of the hawker's bored pitch outside the theater in Fred Allen's IT'S IN THE BAG: "ZOMBIES IN THE ATTIC with an All-Star Cast!"

-- Ted Newsom

11:06 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Watched LADY ON A TRAIN last night. Cute. I loved how DD had three different hairstyles after she entered the Circus nightclub.

7:01 AM  
Blogger Dave G said...

John, thanks for this piece - "Lady on a Train" is a Christmas favourite in my house, and it deserves to be better known. When recommending the film to friends, I've struggled to convince them that the mix of comedy, film noir/mystery and Deanna Durbin singing really works as a whole - but work it does! (Vague spoiler ahead) I also like the clever casting, playing as it does with audience expectations vis-a-vis certain actors. I'm not otherwise a Deanna Durbin fan, but this "screwball noir" (two genres I do adore) is one film of hers that I treasure.

best,
DG

3:49 PM  
Anonymous Espana said...

Deanna Durbin is a treasure not well known to today's generation but was well loved in her time. If you enjoy movies like Parent Trap you will love the original take on children trying to get their parents together. This hilarious movie includes the fabulous singing voice of Deanna that makes it the tops with me. A definate 'must see' if you enjoy comedy and music. If you like this one you will adore the sequal Three Smart Grow Up.

4:42 AM  

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